Now we all know that financial budgets are finite, particularly in these cash-strapped times. However, you would hope that the welfare of a child is considered to be more important than saving money. Wouldn’t you?
Over the last couple of years I have regularly reported here how the demands placed upon the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (‘Cafcass’) have increased, particularly in respect to the number of applications by local authorities for children to be taken into care, but also in relation to private law children cases not involving local authorities. I have often commented on the strains that this must be putting the system under. Something is likely to break, unless of course further resources are made available.
Well, now we have been told by the Chief Executive of Cafcass Anthony Douglas that the service is working with the government to look at possible measures to stem demand. The news was contained in a statement from Douglas in the service’s annual report, in which he says:
“I have been in discussion with the President of the Family Division, senior judges, the Legal Aid Agency and other delivery partners about the potential for bringing cash limited budgeting principles into the family justice system, by defining a fixed budget for Cafcass services in each local court area and a pricing schedule (for example, for a section 7 report; for a contact monitoring order). This could be a significant development for the years ahead and we will continue to pursue realistic policy options for this.”
Yes, that would certainly be ‘significant’.
A little background here, for the benefit of those who don’t understand the role of Cafcass in private cases involving children, where the parents are in dispute over arrangements for their offspring. In most contested cases the Court will order Cafcass to prepare a section 7 report, more commonly known as a ‘welfare report’. Cafcass will then investigate the case and file the report, usually making a recommendation as to what order or orders the Court should make. Now, courts have long been aware of the resources that have to go into the preparation of a report, so they don’t order a report unless they consider it absolutely necessary, to help establish what is best for the welfare of the child.
The future envisioned by Douglas is one in which family courts will have to consider not just what is best for the welfare of the child, but also whether there is enough money left in the local pot to pay for a report. What happens when the pot runs out?
Presumably Douglas foresees some sort of ‘emergency funding’ being made available to ensure that reports can be ordered when it is clear that the welfare of a child could be seriously adversely affected without a report, but who determines that? And doesn’t that run a cart and horses through the whole idea?
In any event, if a court that is considering ordering a report looks at its local budget and sees that it is reaching its limit, that will obviously make it more likely that it will not order a report. But, as I said above, courts are already only ordering reports when they think it absolutely necessary. Is the bar for what is ‘absolutely necessary’ to be set higher when money is short? Remember, a court making a decision upon the welfare of a child without the benefit of a welfare report is going to be hugely less well informed, and therefore far more likely to make a bad decision.
As for public law cases, Douglas has said that Cafcass is working with the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Education and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services to try to tackle the issue of high demand. He has stated that Cafcass is keen to do more pre-proceedings work with local authorities, so that children who do not need to be subject to care proceedings can be identified and “stepped-down” from care applications. He has also indicated that more children could be placed with their families, rather than removed from them. Of course, these courses of action could be good ideas, but it seems they may be dictated more by cost considerations, rather than child welfare.
Welcome to the future, where whether you will have contact with your children or whether a child is removed from abusive parents will depend upon how much money is left in the kitty.
Image by Thomas Barker via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence